The In-Between: Sufjan Stevens and the Anticipation of Holy Saturday

Thankful for this reflection from Kelly Reed. I’m not sure what I expected from turning […]

Thankful for this reflection from Kelly Reed.

I’m not sure what I expected from turning thirty. (I suspected there would at least be a dog in the picture…alas, no). My other friends in their thirties have moved steadily through the phases of adulthood. They’ve developed careers, gone to grad school, taken managerial roles. Single friends have become married friends, have become married friends with a house, have become married friends with a house and kids. It seems to have happened gradually, and yet, suddenly. Yesterday we were celebrating college graduations and new jobs, today I’m holding your two-year-old while you clean an ocean of milk off the floor.

Is this what I expected thirty to look like? A six-figure career? A husband? A house? Kids?

No, not necessarily.

This movement forward (is it forward?) seems natural and right, but not inevitable. We all make choices in life and, as they’ve chosen their paths, I’ve chosen my own. I’ve never felt jealous — only a desire to walk alongside them and, more than anything, to not be forgotten.

And yet, at thirty, the vague sense of confidence that I had, that I was heading in a some kind of direction for some kind of purpose, vanished without warning. In its place: a hollow, omnipresent feeling of uncertainty, anticipation (anxiety?) for something I cannot name and do not know.

With each day that passes, thirty feels less like “the new twenties” (as promised by the magazines), and more like an indiscriminate confinement, a Kafkaesque waiting for one’s day in court. Is there something I should (could) be doing? I replay the choices of my past, I weigh the decisions that could shape my future. I find myself paralyzed, incapable of movement — uncomfortably existing in the space between what was and what is to come.

In 2015, Sufjan Stevens released Carrie and Lowell, an unabashedly bare and intimate exploration of Sufjan’s own grief over the death of his mentally ill and estranged mother.

Such candor from a man who is known for his ability to craft elaborate allegories and vibrant productions was, to say the least, unexpected. Six years prior, he’d released Age of Adz: a thrillingly messy, complex, and disorienting concept album about outsider artist Royal Robertson. The Adz tour was just as frenzied as its songs, including eerie animations of Robertson’s art, a twenty-five minute opus (“Impossible Soul”) played in its entirety, and an abundance of extra-terrestrial costumes (bodysuits lined with neon piping, adorned with lights and, at one point, the addition of wings).

When Sufjan toured for Carrie and Lowell, the concert experience was markedly different.

He opened the 2015 show in Chicago, IL, on a dimly lit stage and, with wavering voice, played the opening track of the album, “Death With Dignity.” As 8mm footage of his childhood rolled on enormous screens behind him, his falsetto was faltering, his fingers fumbled over chords that should have been routine.

Gone were the theatrics and flamboyant displays; here we were confronted with a man of deep sorrow, coming to terms with the realities of life and death.

After an hour-and-a-half set packed with childhood footage, old favorites, and simple yet profound stage production, we seemed to finish the last song (“Blue Bucket of Gold”), and the stage went black. Tetelestai. It is finished. Or so we thought.

Suddenly, a collective gasp rang out in the audience as two disco balls burst into light behind the screens. The effect was startling, like light streaming through stained glass windows. They shined magnificently and ominously, scattering diamonds of light throughout the hall.

For what seemed like an eternity, we sat in compulsory silence. The theater held its breath, waiting in solemn anticipation for something to break forth and relieve the suspense caused by oscillating synth pads and diamond-pierced darkness.

A Good Friday service of sorts, we found ourselves in the patient, tenuous space between life and death.

Our peaceful observation was suddenly shattered when began a near-panic-inducing revelry of flashes and sounds that shook the theater and buried the audience. The catharsis, with its colliding drums, schizophrenic lights and musical chaos, took entirely too long. The audience around me shifted uncomfortably. Is this death? Is this rebirth? Is this pain? Is this joy? It was impossible to tell.

When finally the discord slowed, blue searchlights appeared, scanning the concert hall and illuminating the faces of the audience — some in tears, some in terror, some with heads bowed, others staring blankly ahead. I was surprised to find myself crying. Gradually, the music faded and the stage lights came on. The musicians, dressed simply in dark street clothes, joined hands and took a bow.

As we clamored to our feet with enthusiastic applause, the silhouette of a motherless musician from Michigan retreated from the stage.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Walter Mischel, PhD, a psychologist at Stanford, ran a simple study to explore self-control as predictor of future success in children. The experiment was as follows: A child was presented with a plate of marshmallows and told that the researcher would have to leave the room for a short period of time. If she was able to wait until the researcher returned, she would be allowed to eat two marshmallows. Otherwise, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back immediately  —  but she would only be allowed one marshmallow.

Unquestionably, I would have chosen the latter option. Requests for indeterminate patience, regardless of reward, is wholly intolerable to me. One marshmallow, at my choosing, is just fine; I’d rather know what I’m getting into than to occupy the unknown.

As such, Holy Saturday — the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday — is problematic for me. Like the feigned surprise of a child who has stolen an early peek at her birthday gift, I could never quite maintain appropriate deference for the mystery and patience of this day. I know what the promise is, how the story ends, what the Resurrection brings. There is no mystery here, only space and time between.

And yet, I wonder what the time between Christ’s death and resurrection felt like to those left in the lurch.

Some had followed Him to Jerusalem, broken bread, drank wine. Some had walked alongside Him on the march to Golgotha, wept as He languished on the cross, and, ultimately, laid Him to rest in the tomb…and now, with the stone rolled in place, what were they to do?

I’m reminded of the uncomfortable final ten minutes at the Carrie and Lowell show: I’d sat on my hands and tapped my foot, in awe but also terrified, trying desperately to find a common rhythm, to make sense of the cacophony, praying for resolution. Did they, too, oscillate between awe, fear, and desperation? Given the chance, would they ring a bell to end the entire fiasco? Or simply wait?

The chasm between death and life, like a brightly lit room turned suddenly dark, has a foreboding, disorienting effect; it’s nearly impossible to see even a hand in front of you, much less any obstacle in your path. You may choose to risk it and continue upon your tasks, suffering the consequence of a rogue Lego or furniture corner. But movement doesn’t change the state of darkness. Paradoxically, in this space, it seems the best course of action is inaction — standing still and allowing time for your eyes to adjust. The patience to endure until this point is a matter of faith; a choice to rest, to wait in the instinctual hope for what is to come.

In the shadow of the Cross, this is what I’ve woefully take for granted all along: hope.

Hope is not an innate human disposition, bereft of pain or discomfort. Rather, it is a gift from God, born of suffering. As Paul describes in Romans 8, it is the foretaste of glory amidst the anguish of childbirth, a tightly held promise for life, while in the throes of death. Karl Barth explains the inextricable nature of suffering, patience, and hope in Christ: “If we suffer with Him in this hope…we can and may and must suffer in patience: answering His patience with our patience… with our waiting for redemption.” In suffering, hope. In hope, patience. In patience, redemption. For who hopes for what they already have?

Recently laid off, the gravity of “thirty” feels all the more oppressive to me. I‘ve been passing the time by working freelance gigs, applying to jobs, writing music, sitting on my hands, tapping my foot, trying desperately to find a common rhythm, to make sense of the cacophony, praying for resolution… And yet, my cries are only a slight harmony added to the chorus already intoned by all of creation — a song of yearning, waiting, groaning for Glory. Already, not yet. Like the Carrie and Lowell finale, discomfort is prominent, but resolution is imminent.

As we progress through the Lenten season, I am embracing anticipation for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. By the grace of God, I find myself closer to understanding the significance of Holy Saturday than ever before; enduring, with patience and hope, the indeterminate time and space of the in-between. And, at thirty, I am expectant and ready to be greeted by the Risen Christ on Easter morn, as if for the first time.

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4 responses to “The In-Between: Sufjan Stevens and the Anticipation of Holy Saturday”

  1. Pierre says:

    Thanks for this. It’s absolutely uncanny how much it feels like it was written for me: I’m in my early 30s, feeling the pinch of liminal space and uncertainty all the time, and I love love love Sufjan Stevens and Carrie and Lowell.

    That album connected with me profoundly, as it was released two months after my grandfather’s death. He was my last living grandparent and we were very close. The sense of grappling with the unknown that pervades the album is so melancholy as well as oddly nourishing. His death was an inflection point in my life, after which I’ve been much more gripped by knowledge of mortality and finitude, along with the early-30s maundering and unfulfilled expectation that you describe here.

    I wish I knew what came next. But I guess I’ll just have to let the mystery be instead.

  2. Luke says:

    As someone careening towards 30, but has been where you seem to be (if I understand what you’re saying well) for well, most of my twenties, I guess I’ll say welcome to the club. I … it seems, douchy to say it this way. But I know the paralysis and indecision well. I just wrote a scathing 3 page … letter or journal entry at myself yesterday. So I definitely won’t presume to be able to tell you how to deal with it.

    But mostly, thank you for the reminder. Mbird is usually where I find my reminders of hope. Because I, unsurprisingly, have not yet been able to be always hopeful. It comes and goes. And, it has certainly slipped away more than usual over the last …. year or so probably. And it seems to have just been in the last week that I’ve been reaching a tipping point. And then this. This is wonderful. I do enjoy Sufjan. Not on a regular basis. But he is fantastic.
    But, per the usual, it’s just nice to know I’m not alone. I find myself, a “grown” man, crying at the most simple, basic things these days too. And like, way too often. (My millennial-ness is showing.) It was here on Mbird some years ago that I learned about abreaction and that’s the only thing I can think of that it must be in my case. Though I don’t think it fits the clinical definition of that precisely. Still, you’re not crazy. Movies (Capernaum, to name just one), music, friggin videos on whatever social media site you prefer, things that I can, because of Mbird, see plain as day the grace or mercy someone has shown. Just out of nowhere.

    You write wonderfully as well. So you’ve got that goin for ya.

  3. Emily L. says:

    The Carrie and Lowell concert was stunning. It was spiritual. It was abreacting (can you make abreaction into abreacting?) (love the podcast!). Thank you for writing this piece. I’m 39 and feel this. Tomorrow is Easter- Hallelujah!

  4. Eden says:

    Thanks for your take on that moment from Carrie and Lowell. I saw the concert in Baltimore and felt very similarly during that period of overwhelming cacophony. In the end the best I could make of it was as a metaphor for the Presence of God. But your likening it to Holy Saturday’s uncertain, irrational waiting is good too. Thanks.

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